Five to seven years ago, when I was new to teaching, I was a bit shocked to find how homophobic the student body was. I live in a bubble and I started out believing we'd moved on from the Section 28 era. But I found that my straight students were, at best, absolutely ignorant of anything to do with sexual diversity. They giggled when discussing a case study about a lesbian couple, and they had vaguely heard of gay men, whom they assumed to be obviously effeminate, but thought of gayness as a rare and exotic condition. They asked questions like, you know how gay men have a different way of speaking, doesn't that mean that being gay must be genetic? That kind of thing was well-meant, though it must have been pretty miserable for non-straight students in the group. The worst instances were things like when a particular student was absent from a tutorial group, and a fellow student mentioned that they thought the absentee might be GAY, as if this were some kind of scandalous gossip.
The last few years, though, those who were born in the last years of the 90s (I know!), and came of age in the era of same-sex marriage and internet social justice, they're completely different. They'll remind teachers to be more inclusive of identities beyond just "gay" and "straight". They take it absolutely as read that their colleagues and patients include a diverse range of gender identities and sexual orientations, they can talk (without prompting) about the difference between sex and gender. And I noticed the materials for the class on gender and sexuality (which I was supposed to facilitate but an administrative muddle meant that I actually didn't) now cite Kate Bornstein and mention things like the trans community's justified grievances against medical gatekeepers. So, you know, the medical school is moving forward too, it's not only the students.
Even a few years back it was often difficult to get the students to have sensible discussions about racism. The white students would talk about not seeing colour and saw racism as an outdated issue with little relevance to the modern world. Or they'd complain about political correctness and how they were scared of getting into trouble for accidentally saying the wrong word, and worry about patients being "over-sensitive" and seeing imaginary discrimation whenever they didn't get what they wanted. And the Asian and Black students would look increasingly uncomfortable but rarely felt able to enter the discussion. Nowadays they don't even pick up the bait of "do you think racism is still a problem?", they only hesitate over whether they're allowed to say "duh" to a tutor. Without making a fuss about it, the groups naturally let the students of colour lead on discussions about racism, with white students asking questions and adding minor corroborations. They do discuss topics like whether anti-white racism exists, in a sensitive and nuanced way, including things like anti-Polish and anti-zigan prejudice. I witnessed a really fascinating discussion between two Black students in a particular group recently, where one repeated the claim that racism is always present but the targets shift: it used to be Jews, then it was Black people, but now Black people are ok and it's Muslims that face problems. And it was the other Black student who challenged him, no, anti-Black racism is still a major issue today. Judging by accents I think the first student is probably from an immigrant background and the second British raised.
The last few weeks of term have a bunch of teaching about disability, and yes, the students still struggle intellectually with the social model, but they've got a lot more aware of ableism and are committed to eradicating such prejudice from the medical community. Even the "soft" ableism of worrying about how disabled people would have poor quality of life and therefore don't benefit as much from medical treatment seems to be almost gone. I did my best devil's advocate and couldn't get anyone to concede any compromise on strict equality between disabled and abled patients, including a clear grasp of the concept that equality means adapting treatment to the individual rather than offering strictly the same treatment to all. The lesbian couple I mentioned earlier? Now nobody even questions the idea of two women seeking fertility treatment, and they were pretty game about the idea of deaf mothers actively seeking to conceive a genetically deaf child, understanding that some people consider being Deaf to be a cultural difference not a disability.
So I'm not saying that everything is perfect and prejudice within the medical world will die out as the older generation retire. But it's such a joy to work with these students who want us to improve our teaching to be more social justice focused, compared to only a few years back when students kind of resented hearing about prejudice and inequality, cos obviously they're not racist so why waste time that could be used for learning physiology.
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